by John W. Steele
When he first started robbing graves, Ed Skinner swore this one would be his last, but it never was. Ed was a thirty-nine year old bachelor who made his living sorting tin cans in a factory. Some days he stacked the big cans on the black carts, and some days he stacked the little cans on the yellow carts: ten hours a day... five days a week.
He needed to believe there was a pot of gold or a buried chest of treasure hidden somewhere beyond the crest of the rolling green mountains that surrounded the little town of Masonville. Sometimes, he’d stare out the window of the factory and gaze at the vibrant emerald hills that flowed like a haunted melody just outside the borders of his reality.
He wanted to believe the world still held an adventure, and that he wouldn’t have to spend the rest of his life at the cannery like his father, Clarus, had done. But somewhere deep inside, Ed knew everything he believed in was a fantasy.
The cannery had killed his Dad. Clarus had slaved in the stifling brick dungeon for nearly four decades and the factory couldn’t bear to let his old man go. A year before he was to retire he caught his arm in the pulley on the knobbing machine. The giant wheel tore the little man’s arm off at the shoulder and the ruptured vessels poured blood deep inside his chest.
In shock, Clarus continued to walk down the aisle, his final attempt to escape from the prison of his world. He raised his other arm and reached for the paper card that had been the only ticket to freedom he’d ever known, then fell over dead at the time clock.
The modest insurance settlement from the accident almost paid off the medical bills of Ed’s mother, Cecilia. She had left him the year before, when a tumor invaded her brain and she died of cancer.
Ed remembered his feeble attempts in trying to care for her, and the repulsive stench that filled his nostrils when he changed the diaper on the woman that had been his portal to this hell world. He remembered the open weeping pressure sores on her back and buttocks that refused to heal, and the visage of insanity etched on her haggard face the day he realized she no longer recognized his voice or knew who he was.
* * *
It was a cold gloomy day in November, and a pewter sky obscured the sun. Sleet spattered on the stained glass window in the kitchen of the farmhouse Ed shared with his parents. Clarus sat half drunk at the table talking with the nurse, dark blue circles lined his eyes, and the furrowed creases in his face were deep and defined.
Clarus no longer had the strength to care for his wife and work full time; neither one of them did. The factory drew the life out of them both like an insatiable parasite. With tears in his eyes, and a trembling hand, Clarus scratched his name on the document lying on the table.
The next day the blue ambulance pulled in front of the house and they took Cecelia to the nursing home. It was for the best, but a few weeks later she died alone in the middle of the night, leaving only a vase filled with wilted white carnations and an unopened box of chocolates on the nightstand, a final testament to the woman who had meant so much to him.
She left without warning or apology. Ed admired her for that. But the guilt he felt over abandoning her ate at his guts like a worm chewing out the core of an apple. Sometimes he’d curse at his image when he looked in the mirror, and sometimes he wished he could join her.
After the unjust demise of his father, it dawned on Ed that the world was little more than a prison sentence with no chance of parole. All that he thought he understood about life melted away, leaving only a cold broken reality without meaning. With pictorial clarity he now realized what it seemed everyone else had always known: Life is just a slow form of death... beyond this existence lies nothing but oblivion... nothing matters but me.
With mother and dad gone, Ed was alone. There had been women, of course, but they didn’t happen often or last very long. It seemed to him he’d been born with a shadow around him. The world appeared to him like a picture on a canvas, with no real substance. Inside he felt little more than a cold dark emptiness... a hollow craving, that seemed to draw the light out of women and kept them away.
He had a thing for Beverly who worked in accounting. But she looked at him like he was trash and seemed to cringe when he tried to talk to her. Beverly was blond and lean; she had features so exquisite they had the refined loveliness of sculpture. He couldn’t understand why she had never married. She lived with the manager of the local bank, a matronly woman named Agnes Crawford. Ed knew Beverly was out of his league, but he blamed her indifference towards him on his lack of material abundance.
The only place Ed found any meaning in his existence was in the pristine mountains of Maine and Vermont. On the weekends he’d grab a metal detector and drive into the ghost towns and farmsteads buried deep in the heart of the wilderness. Out where dilapidated buildings stood as a testimony to a time forgotten, and a way of life now extinct. Some of the crumbling structures were over two hundred years old. Fences made of fieldstone bordered the empty meadows, and rusted hunks of discarded farm machinery dotted the landscape like the skeletons of mighty behemoths from the Pleistocene age.
Strewn about the countryside lay ancient cemeteries with toppled headstones, their fading epitaphs etched in granite and marble. Many of the gravesites were bordered with a rusted wrought iron fence or secured by broken brass gates now covered with a heavy sheath of green patina.
In the beginning, Ed was content to dig Indian Head pennies and silver half dimes lying a few inches beneath the ground, but in time he got another idea.
He read somewhere that the early settlers in this part of the country sometimes buried money with the bodies of their family members. At the very least they buried them with their wedding rings. He began to wonder what he’d find if he unearthed some of those ancient skeletons.
At first the idea of grave robbing seemed repulsive, and he argued the idea in his mind.
Are you crazy? Ain’t no way I’m gonna dig into somebody’s grave and steal from the dead.
If you want to get ahead in this world you’ve got to take a chance, Ed, otherwise you’ll always be a slave.
I don’t know, man. You go poking around in a coffin you might end up getting more than you bargained for.
Look at it like this, Ed; those people have been dead for over a hundred years. What the hell good is gold and silver to them anyway? They’re long gone, nothing left of ’em but dust and bone. So what does it matter if you take what they no longer need? There isn’t a living soul around for miles. There’s a fortune lying in the ground for somebody with the nerve to grab it.
* * *
The cans on the conveyor belt kept rolling out like an endless stream of shiny chrome marbles. Every day, Ed stared mindlessly at the river of tin cans, and every night, he thought about the diamonds and gold brooches lying a few feet below the surface of the ground. He thought about the freedom waiting just outside the walls of the cannery. And when his back ached, and his feet burned like hell fire after standing on the concrete floor all day, he thought about how great it would be to drive home in a brand new truck.
He pictured himself cruising down Main Street on Saturday night in a shiny new forest green four-wheel drive pickup. Beverly would be next to him; his arm draped over her shoulder. He’d pull up in front of the Oasis and everybody would know who he was. When they walked into the bar his friends would all wave.
Ed thought... and he sorted cans, until the idea of grave robbing became the solution to a life with no purpose... and the solution became a burning desire.
* * *
Copyright © 2007 by John W. Steele